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The Wisdom of Insecurity

by Alan W. Watts

reading notes

The more one studies attempted solutions to problems in politics and economics, in art, philosophy and religion, the more one has the impression of extremely gifted people wearing out their ingenuity at the impossible and futile task of trying to get the water of life into neat and permanent packages.

If happiness always depends on something expected in the future, we are chasing a will-o-the-wisp that ever eludes our grasp, until the future, and ourselves, vanish into the abyss of death.

There is no level of society, there must even be few individuals, touched by modern education, where there is not some trace of the leaven of doubt. It is simply self evident that during the past century the authority of science has taken the place of the authority of religion in the popular imagination, and that scepticism, at least in spiritual things, has become more general than belief.

The immediate results of this honesty have been deeply unsettling and depressing. For man seems to be unable to live without myth, without belief that the routine and drudgery, the pain and fear of this life have some meaning and goal in the future. At once, new myths came into being - political and economic myths with extravagant promises of the best of the futures in the present world. These myths give the individual a certain sense of meaning by making him part of a vast social effort, in which he loses something of his own emptiness and loneliness. Yet the very violence of these political religions betrays the anxiety beneath them - for they are but men huddling together and shouting to give themselves courage in the dark.

On the one hand, there is the anxiety that one may be missing something, so that the mind flits nervously and greedily from one pleasure to another, without finding rest and satisfaction in any. On the other, the frustration of having always to pursue a future good in a tomorrow which never comes, and in a world where everything must disintegrate, gives men an attitude of “what’s the use anyhow?” Consequently our age is one of frustration, anxiety, agitation and addiction to “dope.” Somehow we must grab what we can while we can and drown out the realisation that the whole thing is futile and meaningless.

We may begin by granting all the agnosticism of a critical science. We may admit, frankly, that we have no scientific grounds for belief in God, in personal immortality or in any absolutes. We may refrain altogether from trying to believe, taking life just as it is, and no more. From this point of departure there is yet another way of life that requires neither myth nor despair. But it requires a complete revolution in our ordinary habitual ways of thinking and doing.

You cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk of with a river in a bucket.

A careful study of comparative religion and spiritual philosophy reveals that abandonment of belief, of any clinging to a future life for one’s own, and any attempt to escape from finitude and mortality, is a regular and normal stage in the way of the spirit.

Paradox as it may seem, we likewise find life meaningful only when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the “mystery of the universe” only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all. (…) The discovery of the mystery, the wonder beyond all wonders, needs no belief, for we can only believer in what we have already known, preconceived, and imagined. But this is beyond any imagination. We have but to open the eyes of the mind wide enough and “the truth will out.”

A consistent diet of rich food either destroys the appetite or makes one sick.

The real problem does not come from any momentary sensitivity to pain, but from our marvellous powers of memory and foresight - in short from our consciousness of time. For the animal to be happy it is enough that this moment be enjoyable. But man is hardly satisfied with this at all. He is much more concerned to have enjoyable memories and expectations - especially the latter. With these assured, he can put up with an extremely miserable present. Without this assurance, he can be extremely miserable in the midst of immediate physical pleasure.

The power of memories and expectations is such that for most human beings the past and the future are not as real, but more real than the present. The present cannot be lived happily unless the past has been “cleared up” and the future is bright with promise. There can be no doubt that the power to remember and predict, to make an ordered sequence out of a helter-skelter chaos of disconnected moments, is a wonderful development of sensitivity. In a way it is the achievement of the human brain, giving man the most extraordinary powers of survival and adaptation to life. But the way in which we generally use this power is apt to destroy all its advantages. For it is of little use to us to be able to remember and predict if it makes us unable to live fully in the present.

What is the use of planning to be able to eat next week unless I can really enjoy the meals when they come? If I am so busy planning how to eat next week that I cannot fully enjoy what I am eating now, I will be in the same predicament when next week’s meals become “now.”

We have reached a point where the advantages of being conscious are outweighed by its disadvantages, where extreme sensitivity makes us unadaptable.

Perhaps the most exasperating thing about “me,” about nature and the universe, is that it will never “stay put.” It is like a beautiful woman who will never be caught, and whose very flightiness is her charm. For the perishability and changefulness of the world is part and parcel of its liveliness and loveliness. This is why the poets are so often at their best when speaking of change, of “the transitoriness of human life.” The beauty of such poetry lies in something more than a note of nostalgia which brings a catch in the throat.

The images, though beautiful in themselves, come to life in the act of vanishing. (…) To be passing is to live; to remain and continue is to die. “Unless a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it remains alone. But if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.”

For poets have seen the truth that life, change, movement and insecurity are so many names for the same thing. Here, if anywhere, truth is beauty, for movement and rhythm are of the essence of all things lovable.

Is it not, then, a strange inconsistency and an unnatural paradox that “I” resists change in “me” and in the surrounding universe? For change is not merely a force of destruction. Every for is really a pattern of movement, and every living thing is like the river, which, if it didn’t flow out, would never have been able to flow in. Life and death are not two opposed forces; they are simply two ways of looking at the same force, for the movement of change is as much the builder as the destroyer.

To resist change, to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist you kill yourself.

If you look at it carefully, you will see that consciousness - the thing you call “I” - is really a stream of experiences, of sensations, thoughts and feelings in constant motion. But because these experiences include memories, we have the impression that “I” is something solid and still, like a tablet upon which life is writing a record. Yet the “tablet” moves with the writing finger as the river flows along with the ripples, so that memory is like a record written on water - a record, not of graven characters, but of waves stirred into motion by other waves which are called sensations and facts.

Struggle as we may, “fixing” will never make sense out of change. The only thing to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.

The root of the difficulty is that we have developed the power of thinking so rapidly and one-sidedly that we have forgotten the proper relation between thoughts and events, words and things. (…) This one-sided development of man is not peculiar to intellectuals and “brainy people” who are only extreme examples of a tendency which has affected our entire civilisation.

Just as money does not represent the perishability and edibility of food, so words and thoughts do not represent the vitality of life.

The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true. It has shown that all systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them actually “grasp” reality. And because religion was being misused as a means for actually grasping and possessing the mystery of life, a certain measure of “debunking” was highly necessary.

This vision is (…) the unclouded awareness of this undefinable “something” which we call life, present reality, the great stream, the eternal now - an awareness without the sense of separation from it.

We can’t go on defining things indefinitely without going round in circles. To define means to fix, and, when you get down to it, real life isn’t fixed.

This is why modern civilisation is in almost every respect a vicious circle. It is insatiably hungry because its way of life condemns it to perpetual frustration. (…) The root of this frustration is that we live for the future, and the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience, which exists only in the brain. The “primary consciousness”, the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g. everyone will die) that the future assumes a high degree of reality - so high that the present loses its value.

Despite the immense hubbub and nervous strain, we are convinced that sleep is a waste of valuable time and continue to chase these fantasies far into the night. Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure. It isn’t that the people who submit to this kind of thing are immoral. It isn’t that the people who provide it are wicked exploiters; most of them are of the same mind as the exploited, of only on a more expensive horse in this sorry-go-round. The real trouble is that they are all totally frustrated, for trying to please the brain is like trying to drink through your ears.

The working inhabitants of a modern city are people who live inside a machine to be batted around by its wheels. They spend their days in activities which largely boil down to counting and measuring, living in a world of rationalised abstraction which has little relation to or harmony with the great biological rhythms and processes. As a matter of fact, mental activities of this kind can now be done far more efficiently by machines than by men - so much so that in a not too distant future the human brain may be an obsolete mechanism for logical calculation. (…) If we are to continue to live for the future, and to make the chief work of the mind prediction and calculation, man must eventually become a parasitic appendage to a mass of clockwork.

“It is interesting to note that we may be facing one of those limitations of nature, in which highly specialised organs reach a level of declining efficiency, and ultimately lead to the extinction of the species. The human brain may be as far along on its road to this destructive specialisation as the great nose horns of the last of the titanotheres” - Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics

There are few grounds for hoping that, in any immediate future, there will be any recovery of social sanity. It would seem that the vicious circle must become yet more intolerable, more blatantly and desperately circular before any large numbers of human beings awaken to the tragic trick they are playing on themselves. But for those who see clearly that it is a circle and why it is a circle, there is no alternative but to stop circling. For as soon as you see the whole circle, the illusion that the head is separate from the tail disappears. And then, when experience stops oscillating and writhing, it can again become sensitive to the wisdom of the body, o the hidden depths of its own substance.

The function of the brain is to serve the present and the real, not to send man chasing wildly after the phantom of the future.

After all, the brain is not a muscle, and is thus not designed for effort and strain. (…) The brain can only assume its proper behaviour when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of the present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.

We don’t need action - yet. We need more light. Light here means awareness - to be aware of life, of experience as it is at the moment, without any judgements or ideas about it.

What is true and positive is too real and too living to be described, and to try to describe it is like putting red paint on a red rose. (…) The truth is revealed by removing things that stand in the light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates, not by building, but by hacking away.

Calling a desire bad names doesn’t get rid of it. What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking it is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it you must not face it, but be it.

To understand that there is no security is far more than to agree with the theory that all things change, more even than to observe the transitoriness of life. The notion of security is based on the feeling that there is something within us which is permanent, something which endures through all the days and changes of life. (…) We do not actually understand that there is no security until we realise that this “I” does not exist.

The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain. But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by this inner effort to get away from it, to separate the “I” from the feeling. The effort creates a state of tension in which the pain thrives. But when the tension ceases, mind and body begin to absorb the pain as water reacts to a blow or cut.

A body of water does not run away when you push it; it simply gives at the point of the push and encloses your hand. A shock absorber does not fall down like a bowling pin when struck; it gives, and yet stays in the same place. To run away is the only defence of something rigid against an overwhelming force. Therefore the good shock absorber has not only “give” but also stability or weight. This weight is likewise the function of the mind, and appears in the much-misunderstood phenomenon of laziness. Significantly enough, nervous and frustrated people are always busy, even in being idle, such idleness being the “laziness” of fear, not of rest.

How does the mind absorb suffering? It discovers that resistance and escape - the “I” process - is a false move. The pain is inescapable, and resistance as a defence only makes it worse; the whole system is jarred by the shock. Seeing the impossibility of this course, it must act according to its nature - remain stable and absorb.

Discounting aspiring for the moment, you cannot remove your head from a headache, as you can’t remove your hand from a flame. “You” equals “head” equals “ache”. When you actually see that you are the pain, pain ceases to be a motive, for there is no one to be moved. It becomes, in the true sense, of no consequence. It hurts - period.

Methods are for creating things which do not yet exist. We are concerned here with understanding something which IS - the present moment. This is not a psychological or spiritual discipline for self-improvement. It is simply being aware of this present experience, and realising that you can neither define it nor divide yourself from it. There is no rule but “Look!”

We must repeat: memory, thought, language and logic are essential to human life. They are one half of sanity. But a person, a society which is only half sane is insane. To look at life without words is not to lose the ability to form words - to think, remember and plan. To be silent is not to lose your tongue. On the contrary, it is only through silence that one can discover something new to talk about. One who talked incessantly without stopping to look and listen, would repeat himself ad-nauseam.

(…) the tools of language and thought are of real use to men only if they are awake - not lost in the dreamland of past and future, but in the closest touch with that point of experience where reality can alone be discovered - this moment. Here life is alive, vibrant, vivid and present, containing depths which we have hardly begun to explore. But to see and understand it all, the mind must not be divided into “I” and “this experience.” The moment must be as it always is - all that you are and all that you know.

The white man fancies himself as a practical person who wants to “get results”. He is impatient with theory and with any discussion which does not immediately get down to concrete applications. This is why the behaviour of Western civilisation might be described, in general, as “Much Ado About Nothing.” The proper meaning of “theory” is not idle speculation but vision, and it was rightly said that “where there is no vision the people perish.” But vision in this sense does not mean dreams and ideals for the future. It means understanding of life as it is, of what we are, and what we are doing. Without such understanding it is simply ridiculous to talk of being practical and getting results. It is like walking busily in a fog: you just go round and round. You don’t know where you’re going, nor what results you really want.

If the mind is the directive force behind action, the mind and its vision of life must be healed before action can be anything but conflict.

When each moment becomes an expectation life is deprived of fulfilment, and death is dreaded for it seems that here expectation must come to an end. While there is life there is hope - and if one lives on hope, death is indeed the end. But to the undivided mind, death is another moment, complete like every moment, and cannot yield its secret unless lived to the full - “And I laid me down with a will.” Death is the epitome of the truth that in each moment we are thrust into the unknown.

Where there is to be creative action, it is quite beside the point to discuss what we should or should not do in order to be right and good. A mind that is single and sincere is not interested in being good, in conducting relations with other people as to live up to a rule. Nor, on the other hand, is it interested in being ree, in acting perversely just to prove its independence. Its interest is not in itself, but in the people and problems of which it is aware; these are “itself.” It acts, not according to the rules, but according to the circumstances of the moment, and the “well” it wishes to others is not security but liberty.

“… he lives in the Now-moment that is, unfailingly, “in verdure newly clad.” - Eckart.

It is one thing to have as much time as you want, but quite another to have time without end. For there is no joy in continuity, in the perpetual. We desire it only because the present is empty. (…) We do not really want continuity, but a present experience of total happiness.

The true splendour of science is not so much that it names and classifies, records and predicts, but that it observes and desires to know the facts, whatever they may turn out to be. However much it may confuse facts with conventions, and reality with arbitrary divisions, in this openness and sincerity of mind it bears some resemblance to religion, understood in its other, deeper sense.

What he does not know seems to increase in geometric progression to what he knows. Steadily he approaches the point where what is unknown is not a mere blank space in a web of words, but a window in the mind, a window whose name is not ignorance but wonder. (…) In such wonder there is not hunger but fulfilment. Almost everyone has known it, but only in rare instants when the startling beauty or strangeness of a scene drew the mind away from its self-pursuit, and for a moment made it unable to find words for the feeling. We are, then, most fortunate to be living in a time when human knowledge has gone so far that it begins to be at a loss for words, not at the strange and marvellous alone, but at the most ordinary things. The dust on the shelves has become as much of a mystery as the remotest stars; we know enough of both to know that we know nothing.

wisdom_of_insecurity.txt · Last modified: 2016/06/25 11:43 by maja